Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Lightning Perils: Myths and Tips – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Lightning Perils: Myths and Tips

Posted on 2017-02-25 By

Nearly everyone recreating on water in Central Florida during a thunderstorm says “no big deal” – “not to worry” – “it has never happened here” -OR- “these storms are just a pain in the you-know-what.

Indeed, people harbor many myths about lightning that make them feel immune from their perils.

But known lightning corridors exist. According to NASA’s two satellite-based lightning detectors, we know with certainty that lighting avoids oceans and it almost never strikes the north or south poles, or the Pacific Islands. But lightning strikes Florida, the Himalayas and central Africa with astonishing frequency.

These detectors give us high-quality planet-wide measurements of lightning strikes and their frequency, including evidence of nearly a million lightning flashes per year worldwide.

Bottom line: lightning is nothing to play around with.

In hot weather, for example, there are many daily (and at times torrential) thunderstorms accompanied by lightning throughout Central Florida. Tourists recreating on popular bodies of water like the Rainbow River near Dunnellon, FL often get caught in these sudden storms, leaving them vulnerable when they find themselves at a considerable distance from their designated take-out locations.

They  hunker down and paddle on during a storm because, well, that is pretty much all they can do at the moment. “We are already wet,  no big deal.” many of them say to anxious locals watching their progress.

NOTE: Most people think they are perfectly safe in their aluminum or roto-molded kayaks and canoes. They also think that the tall trees lining Florida river banks will take any lightning hits.

They know all the myths:
(1) that people are poor lightning conductors;
(2) that water is a poor conductor of electricity;
(3) that rubber-soled shoes are very protective;
(4) that lightning follows the most direct path to the ground;
(5) that lightning never strikes twice – and so on.


According to the executive director of the Lighting Protection Institute, Bud VanSickle, these people are in grave danger whether they know it or not. When asked recently about the common scenario described above he said this:

“There is no place safe from lightning outdoors. Definitely not on the water in an open vessel where the body is always the tallest and most likely place to be struck. Trees, even though they might be quite tall and close by, are no guarantee against a lightning strike. And there are no materials “immune” from a strike; they just burn or explode. There is nothing on the water to conduct it away from a person without the potential for injury.”


01. A moving thunderstorm gathers positively charged particles along the ground that travel with the storm. As the differences in charges continue to increase, positively charged particles rise up tall objects such as trees, houses, and telephone poles—and people.

02. Since light travels faster than sound, the thunder is heard after the lightning. If you see lightning and hear thunder at the same time, that lightning is nearby. If you see successive strokes of lightning in the same place on the horizon then you are in line with the storm, and it may be moving toward you.

03. Positive lightning is particularly dangerous because it frequently strikes away from the rain core, either ahead of or behind the thunderstorm. It can strike as far as 5 or 10 miles from the storm, in areas that most people do not consider to be a lightning-risk area. Radial horizontal arcing has been measured at least 20 miles from the point where lightning hits ground.

04. The threat of lightning continues for a much longer period than most people realize. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before leaving safe shelter.

05. Most lightning deaths and injuries in the United States occur during the summer months, when the combination of hot weather, lightning and outdoor activities reaches a peak.

06. People on or in or near water are among those most at risk during thunderstorms. Swimming and boating is particularly dangerous because (1) these people protrude from the water, presenting a potential channel for electrical discharge, and because (2) water is a good conductor of electricity. Before a lightning strike, a charge builds up along the water’s surface. When lightning strikes, most of electrical discharge occurs near the water’s surface. Bodies of water are frequently struck by lightning. Therefore stay away from wet items such as ropes and metal objects such as fences and poles. Water and metal do not attract lightning but they are excellent conductors of electricity.

07. Cardiac arrest and irregularities, burns, and nerve damage are common in cases where people are struck by lightning.

Victims of a lightning strike do not retain the charge and are not “electrified” so it is safe to help them.

08. Being on a corded telephone inside a building is the number one cause of lightning casualties.

09. Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties.

10. If trapped outside, and you get up on the bank of the river, lying flat on the ground increases your chances of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. Don’t crouch, either. The National Weather Service stopped recommending the crouch in 2008 because the data just doesn’t support it. You need to keep moving toward a secure building.

11. The National Weather Service recommends monitoring local weather forecasts and canceling outdoor activities that might put you at risk.

A Cumulonimbus Cloud – from the Latin cumulus (“heap”) and nimbus (“rainstorm”, “storm cloud”), is a dense towering vertical cloud associated with thunderstorms and atmospheric instability.
Pronounced [kyoo-myuh-loh-nim-buhs]



01. Be prepared to exit the river body of water quickly when a storm pops up. If you can hear thunder, lightning is already present whether you can see it or not.

02. Install a reliable weather app on your phone and keep your phone with you at all times.

03. Consider coming to the Rainbow River early in the day and leaving by noon to avoid the possibility of getting caught in an afternoon storm. Even then, check the Weather forecast for the Dunnellon area before you venture out. Sudden storms do sometimes pop up earlier in the day than expected.

04. While you are on the river, stay within a prescribed radius of where your car is parked so that you can get yourself bck to that location as quickly as possible. Avoid paddling the entire length of the river during summer storm season, necessitating a long and sometimes arduous turn-around time to get back to the safety of your car in the event of a sudden storm.

05. Don’t assume it will be a ‘short shower’ when it starts to rain. A sudden storm in Central Florida may be short-lived, yes, but it can also be dangerous, with torrential rain as well as thunder and lightning. Start moving toward your designated take-out location when you hear and see the first signs of a pending storm, including ominous cloud formations.

06. There are no safe places along the river to hide when a storm erupts. The worst thing you can do is tie up under an over-hanging tree to wait out the storm. KEEP MOVING as quickly as possible to your designated take out location and close any umbrellas you may have with you. It goes without saying that any young children with you should be wearing life jackets.

07. Have an agreed-upon EXIT plan in place if your river-going group is large. And make sure everyone knows NOAA’s life-saving ditty:




Frequently Asked Questions About Lightning (FAQ)

NOAA POSTER: When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors! (Printable)

Lightning Infographic from the LIGHTNING PROTECTION INSTITUTE


NOLS MythCrushers: Lightning

When Lightning Strikes On or Near Water

Lightning Myths: 3 Tips to Stay Safe

Lightning Safety: An Interview with Sam Cloud

Understanding Lightning

The Dr Lightning Show

Beyond Thunder Dumb: When Lightning Strikes…(from the Insurance Information Institute)